User talk:Jim Horning

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Your Risks column in CACM[edit]

Hi, allow me to say a few words about your recent Risks column in CACM 12/2005. I'm not speaking for anyone besides myself here, and I don't really disagree with your specific findings. I just would like to point out that your points are not necessarily unique to Wikipedia, and that there already is an awareness of these issues within Wikipedia. In fact, some of your objections have been raised frequently enough to warrant a formulaic reply. Let me go over the main bullet points:

  • "Accuracy: You cannot be sure which information is accurate and which is not." This is true, and it's certainly a bigger problem for Wikipedia than for EB. This is a rather pervasive issue: the modern media in general (including TV, the Internet, newspapers, etc.) cannot be consulted on blind faith alone (people may wish to believe that that was once the case in the Good Old Days, before the invention of the telegraph, say, but they would of course be wrong). On the other hand, one cannot simply push the whole burden of evaluating sources back onto the reader. Which is why Wikipedia has a policy of verifiability and emphasizes the need to cite one's sources and check one's facts. Cynics could also point to the general disclaimer.
  • "Motives: You cannot know the motives of the contributors to an article." It should not be necessary to know or second guess the motives of contributors. There's a long list of things that Wikipedia isn't (it's not a blog, it's not a soapbox, it's not a forum for political campaigning, etc.). Contributions that ignore the goals of the project (which is, after all, to build an encyclopedia) can, and usually will, be reverted or removed. The editorial policy is to write articles in a neutral style that summarizes all relevant points of view (the so-called NPOV policy). What this entails is that point-of-view statements (even if they correspond to widely-held points of view) are out of place. So, for example, if someone with an agenda were to add a line like "ACME products rule/suck", it would get removed without much discussion. Acceptable (and much more informative) ways of saying the same thing include: "ACME products have received numerous awards, including...", or "Prof. John Q. Bumstead gave ACME products a failing grade in his review article ...".
  • "Uncertain Expertise"
    • "Some contributors exceed their expertise and supply speculations, rumors, hearsay," Information that is not verifiable cannot be included in Wikipedia. Anyone has the right to challenge any piece of information and demand to see sources.
    • "or incorrect information" That's the difficult part, at least in moderately obscure areas. Outright hoaxes are relatively easy to identify. It's the insidious vandals that can do some real damage by changing small pieces of information.
    • "It is difficult to determine how qualified an article's contributors are; the revision histories often identify them by pseudonyms, making it difficult to check credentials and sources." That's a general problem with online identities: reputation is established only in the context of the project, there is no other information to fall back on. On the other hand, genuine experts with credentials outside the project are welcome to identify themselves. There are quite a few notable people who have edited Wikipedia articles, including e.g. Joseph Kruskal (User:Kruskal), David S. Touretzky (User:Touretzky), Mitch Kapor (User:mkapor), Richard Stallman (User:rmstallman), etc.
  • "Volatility:"
    • "Contributions and corrections may be negated by future contributors." That is true and it happens all the time. Which is why Wikipedia is completely versioned, and all versions of an article can be referenced (see the "Permanent link" and "Cite this article" links in the toolbox).
    • "One of the co-authors of this column" – I'm guessing that would be you, as it wasn't Lauren Weinstein – "found it disconcerting that he had the power to independently alter the Wikipedia article about himself." First, thanks very much for correcting and expanding your own article. You doing this neither proves nor disproves your point. The near-universal ability to edit almost any article at any given time is morally neutral: it can be used for Good or for Evil. Wikipedia has a rather optimistic outlook, in that Jimmy Wales appears to believe that most people would rather use this power for Good (as you demonstrated). Also, if you were really up to no good, there are mechanisms in place to lock you out pretty quickly.
    • "Volatility creates a conundrum for citations: Should you cite the version of the article that you read (meaning that those who follow your link may miss corrections and other improvements), or the latest version (which may differ significantly from the article you saw)?" There's a pretty easy answer to that, as far as I can tell: all style guides, writer's manuals, etc. I'm aware of appear to agree that one should always cite the exact version of an article that one read. A reader who follows up on the citation can easily step through the version history of an article and even request a diff between the cited version and the most recent version. The situation is much better than the more common scenario, where a researcher reads the draft or pre-print of a journal article that's easily available online, whereas the journal article often isn't. In that situation, it will be much more difficult for another researcher to determine the differences between the informal pre-print or draft and the published version, whereas on Wikipedia the diff is just a few clicks away.
  • "Coverage:"
    • "Voluntary contributions largely represent the interests and knowledge of a self-selected set of contributors." Yup, there is systemic bias. At the very least there's an awareness that this is indeed a problem and a project to address it.
    • "They are not part of a careful plan to organize human knowledge." One of the premises of the Wikipedia project is that the traditional process of building an encyclopedia suffers from poor scalability. The current system, which allows virtually anyone to edit, has proven to be scalable (there are more than 600,000 registered accounts at this moment). Soliciting input from the interested public is nothing new; the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, was compiled, very slowly, on the basis of citations sent in by non-expert volunteers. While Wikipedia has not made any active efforts to recruit experts, there have been systematic efforts to identify gaps in the current coverage. For example, there is a long list of encyclopedia topics which lack articles.
    • "events that happened "before the Web" may be covered inadequately or inaccurately, if at all. More is written about current news than about historical knowledge." While this seems to be true as well, some would say it's more of a feature than a bug. The coverage of current events in EB is dismal, and Wikipedia has a clear advantage here. That's not to say that its coverage of the more distant past shouldn't be extended. Remember also that an encyclopedia is not necessarily intended to include all of human knowledge; all that's required is that it provide a good starting point for further research, by providing an overview of a topic, condensing the findings from the secondary literature, and providing pointers to primary and secondary references.
  • "Sources: Many articles do not cite independent sources." This may be true for a large portion of articles. However, Wikipedia has policies of verifiability and citing sources. To give just one example of how these policies are enforced, an article cannot be promoted to become a featured article unless it has a source and reference section.

None of this is to say that readers should have blind faith in what they read here. But the same is true for every medium and source: Think of the coverage of science and technology in the best newspapers of the world. People have made a hobby (and very useful in-class exercises) out of documenting the fallacies committed by science journalists. And I'm not talking about health coverage of local TV news, I'm talking about the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, etc. If you want to see an area where Wikipedia works very well as a non-specialist reference work, check out the mathematics articles. --MarkSweep (call me collect) 14:02, 2 December 2005 (UTC)

Response re: Risks column in CACM[edit]

Mark,

Most of these points were raised (many of them by me) in the give-and-take of the column's preparation. In our judgement, they did not raise Wikipedia to the level of trustworthiness usually associated with a reputable encyclopedia, nor provide the prospect of doing so in the foreseeable future. But you are free to place your trust where you wish.

I'd like to query just one of your points: "All style guides, writer's manuals, etc. I'm aware of appear to agree that one should always cite the exact version of an article that one read." This seems to me to be such an excellent principle that I wonder why Wikipedia uniformly violates it on internal references?

Jim H.